The Circumpolar North is a region rich in resources: oil, gas and minerals which are important to a growing world economy; renewable energy which must be developed further in order to address the challenges that climate change poses; and food from both land and sea which is sorely needed to sustain a growing global population. The most important resource of all is the people who have the North as their home, with their history, culture and knowledge linked to the land and the ocean.
Resources can, however, be both a blessing and a curse. The history of the North is full of examples of outside drivers forcing a development with a single-minded focus on rapid resource extraction without due concern for the environmental and societal impact of the activities. Building local competence and capacity is key to preventing a repetition of these errors in the future.
Research and education in an academic setting – while at the same time respecting and incorporating traditional knowledge – are key components in this capacity building effort. Only if we succeed in this will we as residents in the North be able to play a natural and key role in regional growth and, by extension, in a sustainable national and international development.
In addition to securing us northerners a seat at the table when decisions that concern the North are being made, capacity building is vital if we are to succeed in developing local communities where people can live good lives today, and to secure a safe future for coming generations. This means that we need to train teachers, health professionals, artists and engineers with a profound understanding of the North. Looking at the history of my own university, UiT The Arctic University of Norway, providing education programs locally and building research capacity in the North is the only sustainable model in the long run. Building these capacities outside the region and then “exporting” them north is a poor and inefficient alternative.
Statistics from nordregio.se for the Nordic countries illustrate my point. Municipalities that host higher education institutions are the municipalities with the highest levels of higher education, and they are the municipalities with the highest levels of R&D investments. In other words, building capacity creates communities which attract industry and businesses.
Given this underlying premise, it is a cause for concern that in many parts of the Circumpolar North higher education institutions are few and far between. Addressing this shortcoming is a national responsibility. Only when the national infrastructure in this field is in place can international collaborative efforts like the University of the Arctic be truly successful. In the meantime, we as individual members of UArctic, and the network as a whole, must continue to work towards fulfilling the UArctic vision: An Empowered North – With Shared Voices.